On this overcast afternoon, most of the enormous tanks in the bowels of the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery are empty. The salmon that eventually will fill them are only a couple of inches long. The fish ladder, which will teem with chums and kings later in the summer, is quiet. A few salmon drift languidly in the outdoor pool.
But inside the hatchery's aquarium and shop, dozens of tourists mill around, sampling the hatchery's own salmon products, watching king crabs scuttle in the tanks, and learning about the Alaska salmon industry. Over the course of a year, 110,000 people will visit the hatchery, on Gastineau Channel about four miles north of downtown off Egan Drive.
That's impressive numbers for an operation with such humble beginnings.
The hatchery opened in 1976 on a back porch at Kowee Creek on Douglas Island, said Eric Prestegard, executive director of Douglas Island Pink and Chum, which is part of the state's nonprofit hatchery enhancement program.
DIPAC operates the Macaulay facility, which opened in 1989, as well as the Sheep Creek coho-rearing facility near Thane Road and the Snettisham Hatchery south of Juneau.
"Our primary goal is to supply fish to the gillnet commercial fleet, sports fleet and personal-use fishers," Prestegard said.
The Macaulay Hatchery is permitted to incubate 50 million pink, 111 million chum, 1.5 million coho and 700,000 chinook eggs. They are kept in a warehouse of incubators, stacked five-high and lined up like library bookshelves in a dark warehouse. Their otoliths, or earbones, are marked in a special process known as "thermal marking." Prestegard said the hatchery was one of the first private nonprofits to employ that technique.
Thermal marking involves changing the water temperature to create rings, like those on a tree cross-section, on the otolith, which is the size of a pin when the salmon is in the egg stage, said Di Tersteeg, the hatchery lab's evaluation coordinator. Fully developed otoliths are a few millimeters long, depending on the species of salmon they come from.
After hatching, the fish are kept in thousands to a tank in round containers the size of backyard pools before being released into the channel to continue the life cycle. Years later, depending on the species, those that don't fall prey to marine predators, bears, gillnets or fishing rods return, as all salmon do, to their birthplace.
Each year the hatchery collects roe and milt - sperm - from about 150,000 chums and 500 kings to propagate the next generation of fish, Prestegard said.
Tourists who participate in the hatchery's 10 to 50 daily tours come to watch the fish churn up the ladder and to learn about the industry.
"They want to know what's the difference between salmon ranching and fish farming," said Rob Parsons, the hatchery's tourism manager. "We start out by saying fish farming is illegal in the state of Alaska. We tiptoe a little bit on it."
The vast majority of visitors to the hatchery are cruise ship passengers during the summer tourism months, but the hatchery will give tours to residents year-round. Prices are $3 for adults and $1.50 for children.
For more, check out www.dipac.net/Macaulay_hatchery.html
"We love to show the place off. That's one of the reasons it's located where it's located. It was designed as a functional, educational showpiece," Prestegard said.
Lorene Palmer, president and chief executive officer of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the hatchery is good for the city's tourism business. Juneau gets about 870,000 visitors per year, she said.
"Being able to see salmon up close is exciting and it's also educational. (Visitors) get a better insight on the life in Alaska." Palmer said. "The more things that we can offer to visitors, the better a destination it makes us."
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.